by Arjuna Da Silva in New Florida April 1989
Familiar stories from the sixties and seventies: creative, educated people go off to dabble in dreams of fame, fortune, or freedom from desire. Some reach pinnacles, others turn back too soon to achieve, and some spend long, cold nights of the soul on the heights. These days Florida draws figures of genius and influence from all walks and weathers to her comfortable shore. Such a figure is Lee Porter Butler, a self-styled, self- taught and on-the-job-trained maverick architect whose designs have been acclaimed in professional journals, local newspapers around the world, CoEvolution Quarterly, and The San Fransisco Bay Guardian.
Lee started in Tennessee, where he first made a name for himself in architecture by designing his family home in 1970. A series of environmentally-sound design discoveries followed, notably the Gravity Geo-Thermal Envelope. In 1975, he transplanted himself and his visions to the rich, innovative soil of California, where from his San Fransisco offices, he was commissioned to design major projects across the country. As Lee tells it, success in California became a game, and it was easy to let its accoutrements – glamour, possessions, prestige – obscure the original inspiration with which he arrived.
God is good. Time passes. People grow.
Lee came to Florida in 1985, with a bubbling crucible of ideas and a commitment to work with environmentally and spiritually aware people. he feels strongly that the Gravity-Geo-Thermal Envelope design, combined with solar electric systems, organic waste recycling, efficient food production, and the Danish principle of Co-Housing (clustering individual homes around a common house with shared facilities) is the best practice to answer to our modern human needs.
Lee talked with me about his ideas for “futuristic community”. A passionate speaker, he makes the most complex processes seem simple. He spoke often of his desire to “get to work” with people of like mind, heart, and spirit – to create “Built environments designed to produce food instead of pollution.”
As we tune into the conversation. Lee has just described the “moment of truth” in his early career. It is the winter of 1972-73, in a small town not far from Memphis. The Butler family is living in the first experimental home. It is an exceptional house: well planned, spacious, energy efficient, and beautiful, maximizing the benefits of sunlight with a mastery of spatial design. One day, during an unexpected ice storm, Lee stands on the second story balcony of the 40′ high greenhouse and opens the doors to go in. Whoosh- a swell of warm air greets him, revealing to him the essence of geothermal heating – the earth providing sufficient warmth for indoor comfort – concept Lee says the early Persians and some Native American tribes also knew and utilized.
LEE PORTER BUTLER: It turned out we didn’t need much energy to heat all the rooms that faced into the greenhouse… I think our whole winter heating bill came to something like sixty dollars for ten thousand square feet! The greenhouse created the geo-thermal because it had three thousand feet of extposed earth floor.
The solar component came in through the greenhouse roof and even on overcast days— like theday when the ice storm hit— it was enough to keep the greenhouse quite warm on the upper level.
AdS: What other energy conservation design elements were used?
LPB: I had a complete closed-loop waste recycling system…and I didn’t have to run furnaces for heating and air-conditioning to keep it comfortable ninety-five percent of the time.
AdS: You said that when you discovered the geo-thermal effect in your home, you became enthralled with the possibilities it presented and spent all your energy– and money– funding a “think team” to help create an even more comprehensive design. And then, finally when you wee at the end of your funds, the flash of insight came and you saw the envelope.
LPB: That’s right.
AdS: And what the envelope is is really a double-walled, or skinned, double-floored, double roofed structure with a “gravity convection loop”? (Lee nods.) Can you explain the convection loop?
LPB: Very simply, cold air falls, warmer, lighter air near the earth, which then rises up til its cold enough to fall again…
AdS: I get the picture. Since then, your design has become even more comprehensive. Your recent prospectus talks about lighting with crystals. What’s that all about?
LPB: Solar tracking crystal reflectors can concentrate very bright light beams deep into the interior of structures where smaller crystals diffuse a part of this beam to light a specific work space. This eliminates entirely electrical day lighting. A single, highly efficient source of electrical light will be used for nighttime lighting. Such a system can be shown to reduce energy requirements for lighting by as much as 96%!
AdS: I’ve been looking over these design descriptions and I’m wondering about two things: first, how expensive is all this extra construction and second, I’m thinking about all the houses we already have that are totally inefficient and polluting.
LPB: Well every house in the world could be retrofitted with an envelope and most people would have to look very closely to know it was there. The envelope can be adapted to any design, material or site. It’s beauty is that a home can maintain any desired temperature, interior relative humidity or oxygen content, in any climate without using either fossil fuels or mechanical systems, and without creating drafts or cold spots. It’s quiet, ecological and healthy.
Building a single unit envelope might be slightly more costly initially, though in the long run huge energy savings would balance that out, and building a cluster of units– a development, as they’re called– would not be more costly than the contemporary way at all.
AdS: Aren’t these designs a bit utopian?
LPB: There are lots of technologies available today that contribute to the success of the design. Look, here’s an example: when plants are grown in the south-facing portion of the envelope– which is the green-house — the envelope becomes a natural electro-static filtering system, removing all dust, pollen and other forms of pollution from the air.
AdS: Where was the first envelope house built and how many are there now?
LPB: The complete envelope was first built in Lake Tahoe in 1977. It was gravity-geothermal, like my first house, but it had an envelope completely encircling all the walls on the north and south and the ceilings and under the floor — an earth- tempered air envelope. It did not use the envelope on the east and west walls, because just having them on the north and south on top and underneath, was enough to keep that house comfortable even at eight thousand feet with snow on the ground all winter.
It’s really impossible for me to accurately say how many homes there are. I can tell you that we sold about fifty thousand books (Ekose’a Homes). We sold ten thousand sets of plans and as I’ve traveled around the United States to do commissions, and just to visit cities, I’ve found hundreds, literally of envelope houses that were built from nothing but the book. I know a lot of people built the house from the book, because I told it all in the book. You don’t have to order the plans unless you want a blown up detailed version of everything. I would say twenty to thirty thousand houses would be a reasonable estimate because, for every one house that we provided custom services on, the same carpentry crew would end up in the next two years doing about twenty more just like it.
AdS: Your most recent designs include floating envelope houses. Are any of the existing envelope houses floating?
LPB: On the water? No.
AdS: Can you say something about the advantages of floating—how you came upon such an outlandish idea?
LPB:Two thirds of the surface of the planet is water– we have a lot more water to float things on than we have land to build things on. When we float something on water, it in and of itself— other than that it’s robbing water of the amount of sunlight that would have reached it had we not been shadowing the water-in- and of itself it doesn’t do near the ecological damage of uprooting vegetation and cutting down trees– as building something on the land. We’re faced with an oxygen crisis, we’re faced with an ozone problem, and it all has to do with how many trees we’re cutting down and how much fossil fuel we’re burning. So my thinking says, “Well, since two-thirds of the earth’s surface is water and it won’t cause nearly the ecological disaster, why not float it?”
Then I started to think about the advantages of floating: number one It’s earthquake proof. You could float this house right here in a pool underneath the house that was just a few inches bigger than the foundation of the house, and it could go through any earthquake on record and nothing inside would be shaken or disrupted. It would sort of boba little bit, but when you float on water you’re earthquake proof. If it’s properly protected with jetties and things, you can also be tidal wave proof. Even though you’re floating out in the middle of the wave, if you break it up by ringing the floating structures with floating concrete jetties you can pretty much protect yourself from all kinds of natural disasters which you cannot in any earth based community.
The next reason that became obvious is that you don’t have to deal with the building authorities, who have become a major, major expense in the cost of anything structural in housing. I would say conservatively that the bureaucracies — just their building codes — are twenty percent of the retail cost of a new home. It’s because of all the people you have to get involved with to get permission to build what you want to build. And the way they make you build is ridiculous in some aspects! They’ve assumed the kind of control over the cost of things that they really have no right to assume.
The other thing is there’s no property taxes (unless you choose to negotiate something), and there’s no land cost. So I can’t think of any good reason why we should go on cutting down trees and building highways when we cn start little model cities, like Venice, floating on the inter-coastal estuaries or waterways and leave the hammocks and the woods and the forests.
AdS: And yet you’re still working on land-based projects?
LPB: At the moment, based on all of the available data that my brain has to work with, that’s what I’m putting out because my perception is that to make a conceptual leap with all this new technology and to leap out onto the high seas with it is possibly going to cause people to discount me altogether. So officially I’m not advocating that we build a floating city.
AdS: What’s the next step then?
LPB: My next step is to work with a team to design and build and sell a land-based community that would provide all of the amenities and luxuries, and necessities that modern urban human beings have come to expect. To satisfy their needs for entertainment, for health, for all kind of facilities, my community will utilize all of the new technologies, already proven and demonstrated over the last thirty years, which would allow us to totally disconnect from all centralized fossil fuel, nuclear and hydro power systems, generate our own power using the sunshine, recycle all of our own waste into many useful products, evaporate, condense and collect all of our potable water. And to design all structures so that they are maintained, without moving parts, at comfortable temperature for human beings year round, and so that the lighting in these structures is non-electrical and non-life threatening (as in a child being shocked to death putting a bobby pin in lighting outlet). And will not cause a fire.
This is practical today. The life cycle costing required to prove the practicality of it is a mere twenty years, which happens to be the life of most real estate loans in the residential sector, and a good percentage in the commercial sector. So it is now possible, with the will, the intention and the plans, to build a community that does approximately one hundredth of the ecological damage present communities are doing. Because of how we are handling our waste, and where we’re getting our power and our water from, and what we’re doing with the energy once we get it.
We’re doing stupid things with energy– absolutely stupid things! Like creating a nuclear reaction to heat water, to create steam to drive huge turbines, to conflict magnetic fields, to generate electric power, to transport it hundreds of miles over huge power lines, and then to transform it back down into usable voltages and into the house and into the toaster oven to toast a piece of toast!
This is patently absurd, and it’s time we looked at the price we’re paying to toast our bread! It may have looked like the best way to do it at the time, and at the time perhaps it was the only way we knew how to do it. But certainly we know a lot more now than we did when we invented fossil fuel systems and toasters. And we can eliminate most of the problems that are seen almost as intractable. They really will go away very quickly once the plans are exposed to the large audience!
AdS: it seems that in order to break into this kind of movement — which flies in the faces of the big power companies — large enough groups of people will have to get together…
LPB: — at the grassroots —
AdS: —and say “This is how we’re going to live together…
AdS: It seems that people are really timid about using new technologies. They seem to be waiting for government or big business to give them the go ahead. What can we do?
LPB: We have to be individually using our own resources. Personally, I now have the knowledge and understanding to put what we’re talking about on paper — draw a picture…with a floor plan… and a property dimension, so complete that you have all the details up to clear title and deed to a home — in all legal aspects. I can do this without spending any money on land or construction, and I can show exactly what is needed, on paper, in the regulations and conditions and agreements among the tenants, just like a large condo project. Just like any planned unit development. I can create all the pieces of paper that describe down to the nth detail where the toilet water even goes…
And I will do that. And then someone else will take that set of documents and show them to you, for example, and get you to sign a contract to help finance the whole thing — or to be a market demand that will bring money running to finance the whole thing.
We have the resources to get started.
AdS: And you think if we package an ecologically sound housing developing it will “bring the money running?”
LPB: Yes, I do. People are ready for a change and big business knows it. There’s a 5,000 acre planned unit development in St. John’s county that has 12,000 homes in it. It’s already been laid out, all the lots are already carved up, all the streets are already laid out, all the shopping centers, everything — 12,000 homes!
But there’s a no-growth feeling in the County Commission. The people of Florida will not let 5,000 acres of St. John’s County — be bulldozed in the conventional greedy-development scenario.
People are changing. I was responsible for the design of a project that destroyed fifty acres of coastal hammock. I don’t plan to be responsible for any more designs that wipe out fifty acres of coastal hammock. I have to take some responsibility for the whole environment getting paved over and built on — we all do.
AdS: If we can go back to your vision for a planned community in Florida for a moment, how is the Co-Housing concept a part of it?
LPB: It’s a family neighborhood concept. You know, the world worked like this a hundred years ago. Before you could jump in your car and disappear and be sixty miles away in an hour, people basically stayed in their own communities and they made those communities work — they couldn’t escape! Now our modern civilization has reached the point where everybody can escape, basically, and no one’s staying to mind the store. There are no communities left; there’s practically no real homes left!
Now to put things back to the level of security of a hundred years ago we have to look at how people are actually living today — not how we want them to live, or how they were living a hundred years ago, but how they are actually living today. Then we can design the structure to make it easy. That’s really all it boils down to. Just acknowledging what already is and letting the structure manifest.
People are not living so much in nuclear families with mommy and daddy and three babies. There are adults living together in the same room that are not cohabiting. There are adults sharing spaces in a communal atmosphere even though there’s no blood or marital relationship whatsoever– people who choose not to work from daylight to dark just to have their own kitchen, VCR, four foot television, washer/dryer/dishwasher/photo lab, etcetera, etcetera. They don’t want to work as hard as you have to work to have all that and they’re quite willing to share a lot of those facilities — because they don’t want to exist on a mountain top with none of them, either. So what’s actually happening today is people are sharing those kinds of facilities, only the structure that we’ve made on the earth doesn’t support that.
AdS: What’s on your drawing board now?
LPB: A drawing (of a community design) that’s got a big pond in the center of it and a dolphin-shaped island in the middle of that, where I imagine people will go to really get in touch… It’s a temple, but it’s not a structure. An island, loos shaped like a swimming dolphin, out in the middle of this pond. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a boat and row over there…?
All around the lake are the shops and schools and churches and community centers, and whatever the people decide they want for the group, surrounded gardens and gradually happening behind those, the houses kind of fall in with gardens…with maybe only one big paved area where everyone can get together…
And I’m drawing all the lots as circles instead of rectilinear properties. There might be some of them in a row of ten by ten little cottages, and everybody lives like a monk in the little cottage and then they all can go to the main house. Some of them might have completely finished houses and still be connected to the main house. There are lots of different versions of living, from complete privacy to being right in the middle of everything…
I’ve learned that you really have to write a scenario that lets everybody win. To the extent that someone comes to you and asks for “one of these in brown, with two cherries on top,” and you say, “no we don’t build those” you’re excluding your project as a generic solution for society. Then we’re just going to keep on having fractured, separate enclaves of very poor and very rich people, for example…
If there isn’t a way for a couple of super wealthy people to find suitable housing in our community, if we can’t make a way for the poorest family to do sweat equity and have a place in our community, we’ve missed the goal somewhere.
AdS: Anything else you would like to say our readers?
LPB: Well…there is this one little piece of information that I’ve been trying to teach new age people… I feel I haven’t been very successful with it (laughs)…its just a mundane, physical-reality piece of information that took me all of my life to figure to figure out…
LPB: That the way you get a dream to manifest is by describing the dream — in words — and then, by putting dimensions and materials and specifications on it. Now if you’re dreaming about everybody living together in peace, you may not be able to put dimensions on that, but if you’re dreaming about a better life, where you don’t have to overwork, where you have clean water, whole foods, a comfortable space of your own- you can take that dream into words, or into a drawing, onto paper. You can concretize your visualization. And that will fulfill the need expressed by your dream.
And that’s the only way we can manifest reality on this physical plane. This swimming pool would not be here if someone hadn’t used the words “swimming pool” and then, by putting dimensions and materials on that, but if you’re dreaming about a better life, where you don’t have to overwork, where you have clean water, whole foods, a comfortable space of your own– you can take that dream into words, or into a drawing, onto paper. You can concretize your visualization. And that will fulfill the need expressed by your dream.
And that is the only way we can manifest reality on this physical plane. This swimming pool would not be here if someone hadn’t used the words “swimming pool” and then handed somebody a drawing that showed how big it was, what it was made of, where it was going to go. Things don’t just appear on the physical plane because you sit around…
I’m not disputing that there are people with miraculous power, but I want to see them start manifesting the things the starving and dying and suffering millions need, and I don’t want to hear any more from them until they do! (laughs)
If we want to see something manifest, we have to get together and agree on what we want to manifest! Then we put specifications and dimensions and locations on it, and it happens! You don’t even have to build something.. If you draw a house up on a beautiful piece of property and start handing the picture out to everybody you know, the odds are very high that someone will go there and build that house on that piece of property! So you really can’t use the excuse, “we don’t have the money”, or “blah-blah-bkah”. All of us can draw, and all of us can sit down and compromise on what the new age people need to start doing.
AdS: Perhaps it’s the compromising that things break down.
LPB: When we’re working with the different need sand preferences of many individuals, there’s the art of compromise. Some people have it. We need people to stand up who can recognize conflicts, suggest possible compromises… show places where needs and preferences overlap, say, “Okay, here are three proposed solutions. I like “A” best but you can pick any one you want or present others provided they take those specific points into consideration…:” You need someone who can focus what is expressed through one mind so everyone can see it again.
AdS: It sounds like you’re describing a different kind of leadership than many of us are accustomed to. I think we mostly know about leaders who do what they want.
LPB: But if someone isn’t there to do that when people have conflicts, then it’s chaos, in any situation– a marriage, a business, a school board, a country. A lot of people on the planet now know how to work through conflict situations, and they need to be in leadership positions. I think that all that’s missing from a democracy, and this country, is that we don’t have a concept of leadership that goes beyond crisis management.
AdS: I think of Barbara Marx Hubbard and her designs for “companion government.”
LPB: Intelligent individuals around the world need a master plan. We need a master plan for America. We don’t have any future goals. We’ve not said to each other that by the year 2000 there will be no uneducated people. We’ve not said there will be no homeless people. We’ve not said wheat, rice, and beans will be free. We’ve not made decisions about future policies and realities that could do something about the horror show that we’re living in. We have no master plan. In fact we’re running up a debt.
Everybody’s confused over what to do. We’re increasing our nuclear army — far from not having a constructive plan, we spend most of our time trying to avoid blowing ourselves up! And all it needs is someone in a position of leadership who will allow everybody to speak up, be heard, and have the projections of their consciousness represented in such a way that they feel acknowledged-
AdS: That’s a big job. That would take more than just one person.
LPB: Yes. A team of all these things going on. facilitators that will focus on goals and cut through the stuff that comes up. And goals more specific than “world peace”. Some of my friends see a sign like “Visualize World Peace”, which I have on the front of my car, and that pretty much tells them that I don’t have anything concrete to contribute — I’m just visualizing this impossible thing. Of course we all want world peace! And we ought to keep those bumper stickers on our cars, but if we can’t agree on a constructive goal that we’re all going to put time in on next week , then we are the problem. We’re the problem if we won’t commit energy to relieving the suffering and conflict and the breakdown in communication —
There may be some aspect of human beings that is destructive. Who knows, you could solve every problem and there could still be people running around who just want to blow everything up? We don’t know that yet But we will never find out until we take care of the basic stuff. Until there’s no more babies dying and screaming for lack of food– who knows what it would be like after that’s taken care of?
I can’t sleep in a house where there’s a baby screaming and starving to death. Can you? I can’t sleep in a world where a baby is screaming and starving to death. I think about it every night.
We’ve got to start setting goals and priorities, and the biggest priority is food… is just making food free. We have free water. We have free access to public parks. We have free access to highways.
Why the hell can’t rice and beans be free? is it because we think if we give them to people they’ll stop working in our system to make us even wealthier than they are? I don’t know, but I think it’s time we gave it a try. Because it sure ain’t working the way it’s going– everybody’s starting to agree on that.
AdS: We seem to be about to make so many fundamental shifts.
LPB: Yes. I’m ready to really feel the abundance I’ve been visualizing. I’m ready to accept it. I’m ready to see it spread like wildflowers…
Ads: Spread like wildfire?
LPB: NO… wildflowers!